The Skills of ‘Digital Natives’ are not Innate

by Kevin Makice

Research conducted by the Open University on so-called ‘digital natives’ — young people whose pervasive exposure to digital information altered their brains, so they learn differently — and concluded that there’s no proof such skills are innate.

Is there really a distinct group of younger people who are not only easy with technology because they’ve grown up with it, but actually think and learn differently as a result? The idea gained quite a bit of traction after Marc Prensky wrote about the idea ten years ago in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, with other writers weighing in, such as Bradley Jorgensen with Generation X and Generation Y.

Since then, the concept has often been questioned, and even Prensky’s own ideas have changed somewhat. The notion persists in the public imagination though. After all, it seems to bear the fatal hallmark of “common sense”. On one side of the divide is the young person who uses technology like she drives her car, without the need for conscious attention to the process. On the other side sits a grizzled and mature individual, maybe a would-be ‘silver surfer’, frowning impotently at a keyboard and calling for his granddaughter.

These personas are the default assumption for most designers and policy makers, presuming that both ends of the age spectrum have natural gifts or barriers to use of digital tools. The nature of OU’s enrollment (anyone can apply) gave the institution a pool of 7,000 participants to study, ranging in age from 21 to 100. Over 4,000 responded to the questionnaire asking about attitudes and educational use of the tools.

“We found no evidence for any discontinuity in technology use around the age of 30 as would be predicted by the Net Generation and Digital Natives hypothesis,” says the report. What they did find was an association between attitudes toward technology and approaches to studying, regardless of age.

Merlin John Online (August 15, 2011, by Gerald Haigh)